The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen
Artist/Commentary: Denis Kitchen
Essays: Neil Gaiman & Charles Brownstein
Editors: John Lind & Diana Schutz
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Price: $34.99 US
Like a lot of comics readers — not all, mind you, but a lot — I discovered the wonder of the medium through the super-hero genre. I remain a fan of both the medium and the genre today (obviously), but as an adult comics reader, I’ve enjoyed discovered different corners of the medium and industry, different applications, different histories. I’ve been aware of Denis Kitchen as a publisher for decades, but I really knew little of the man as an artist. My tastes tend to run a little more mainstream, so I never really happened upon his work before or chose to seek it out. Though this is billed as an art book, it’s really much more. It’s a history of an important and vital aspect of the comics industry from years gone by. While the art featured in this book is reproduced from originals in Kitchen’s own files, just as interesting as the images are Kitchen’s own commentaries on the selected pieces. The ease with which Kitchen moves between different roles in the creative and business processes is impressive, as is his apparent comfort with moving between different sectors of the industry and society. Kitchen somehow manages to embody respectability and rebellion at once, and while he helped to push comics into the future with his underground comics and publishing savvy, he also built bridges with the medium’s past in the form of friendships and partnerships with the men who helped to establish it in the first place.
The Oddly Compelling Art of Denis Kitchen was originally scheduled for publication a little more than 20 years ago to mark a couple of milestones in Kitchen’s life, notably the 20th anniversary of Kitchen Sink Press. At the time and still today, Kitchen was best known as the driving force behind Kitchen Sink Press and as the founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (and perhaps to some extent today, as the father of young cartoonist Alexa Kitchen). Whenever I heard his name, I thought of him in those background roles, but as this book demonstrates, Kitchen was also a cartoonist — and apparently, a prolific one. With style and subject matter firmly rooted in the underground-comics movement of the 1960s, Kitchen went from crafting his self-published cartoon commentaries to a major influence in the industry, introducing audiences to a wide array of stunning talent who remain revered by enthusiasts of the medium today.
This book was an eye-opener for me. Since I started out as a super-hero comics reader, a lot (not all, but a lot) of what I know of comics history is connected to super-heroes. So I was shocked to discover that Marvel Comics hired Kitchen in 1974 to spearhead a fringe comics magazine crafted in the spirit of the underground comics of the 1960s and ’70s. Comix Book didn’t feature Spider-Man or oddball takes on Marvel’s iconic characters, but rather seemed to contribute to counter-culture. That an underground cartoonist such as Kitchen actually formed a partnership and working relationship with Stan Lee, the face of mainstream comics, is fascinating to me. The history in the book comes not only courtesy of Kitchen’s own words in the captions but from CBLDF director Charles Brownstein, whose essay offers a thoroughly retrospective. Neil Gaiman’s much shorter introduction also provides some welcome insight, but on a more personal level.
The wide array of samplings of Kitchen’s art (shot from originals in this book) demonstrates how adaptable he was an artist and often how clever he was as a social commentator. I think what I appreciated the most about his craft was his willingness to satirize well-known comics characters to say something about their books or strips, or about society in general. He employs both faithful and twisted representations of Nancy, Jughead and numerous other comics icons to make effective and amusing points.
Probably my favorite aspect of the book was how it highlights the friendships and partnerships that Kitchen established over the course of his career. I mentioned his business collaboration with Stan Lee and Marvel, but even more important — both to Kitchen and comics history — were his connections with such significant figures as R. Crumb, Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner. My favorite strips in the book were actually the two jam pieces that he and Eisner drew together, each illustrating his own two-dimensional self. Kitchen’s love of the medium and the people who helped to build it in the first place shines through. 7/10
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